"Both the victims of violence and the perpetrators"
The civil war between military-led governments and left-wing guerilla groups officially ended in 1992, but El Salvador remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
In light of the Synod on Youth taking place this month in Rome, Jones said a number of factors, including hardline policies meant to curb gang activity, have led to the rise of devastating violence among young people in El Salvador.
"It really has a lot to do with the lack of opportunities," Jones said. "Kids get in gangs primarily because of dysfunctional families, and living in marginalized neighborhoods where they don't have any other opportunities. Young people, coming out of a situation where there's domestic violence, walk out their door onto the street and there's a gang waiting to recruit them, saying, 'We'll be your family.' And so kids join gangs to get a sense of power, belonging, and identity, and a lack of hope for any other alternatives."
Jones said after the United States began deporting large number of Salvadorans from Los Angeles after the civil war ended, many of the young people who returned were already involved in gang activity.
"You have a situation where in the mid-1990s most young boys were out of school and unemployed, and only made it to 6th grade. And so they started organizing and [the gangs] spread through the metropolitan area," he said. "Then, in 2003, the government decided to put out the 'Iron Fist' policy. Meaning zero tolerance. Meaning any kid with baggy clothes, tattoos and a hat on backwards could get picked up and thrown into prison."
These hardline policies backfired, however, as the homicide rate continued to increase despite the changes.
"The level of violence has risen ever since the country put in these hardline policies," Jones said. "What you have in the country, as I said, is you have the underlying conditions of people living in marginal, overcrowded neighborhoods, that were created spontaneously because of the war, so there's no social service, kids don't have access to school, and the communities are all living in fear during the war, and that just gets translated to the next generation. And this generation acts out on that by joining gangs."
"I think it's the latest manifestation of both structural issues, lack of opportunity, and then trauma from the war getting worked out in a new way, and thirdly the levels of repression that they've had now under the Iron Fist policies for over a decade," he said.
The youth of El Salvador have the capacity to do better, Jones said, if they are given a chance.
"Young people even from the most marginal neighborhoods want to make a positive change in their neighborhood, in their family, and in the country. And what they need is the support to do that," he said. "Repression isn't the kind of support they need. They need access to education, to jobs, and to alternatives to violence."
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"Fleeing a nightmare"
Just as Romero and his contemporaries did nearly four decades ago, the Catholic clergy in El Salvador continue to be broadly outspoken about human rights in the country. In addition to advocating that access to water should be a human right, the bishops spoke out in April against the Trump administration's decision to end Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans in the US. The bishops say ending the program would send unprepared people back into a highly dangerous situation in El Salvador.
"It's critical that people there understand that most people are leaving now because of violence, and it's not migration as usual," Jones said. "I think we need to understand that the dynamics have changed. It's not just about pursuing the American dream...they're really fleeing a nightmare here in these poor neighborhoods….just sending people back [to El Salvador] will put them in harm's way."
Jones said the clergy and organizations like CRS are also working hard to address the problem of gangs and violence from several fronts. This includes working with young people early on, as well as speaking out against El Salvador's highly overcrowded prison system and the hardline policies that have led to it.
"We need to work with adolescents and their families before they get engaged in gangs," he said. "And so they need some policies, highly focused, very targeted, around secondary prevention. And then we're also focused on tertiary prevention, meaning, you have to work with the guys that are locked up. So that when they get out, they don't just go back into the gangs or into criminal behavior, that they actually become peace promoters among some of these neighborhoods."
"We're now working with governments, we're trying to work with the police, to try to help them understand that the repressive tactics are not being effective, and to get better community policing, and more targeted, focused policing, and working with the kids before they get to the point where they need to be locked up."